In a couple of weeks, Idiocracy the movie (not to be confused with: Idiocracy the American President) will celebrate twelve years since its release. Only, nobody will be celebrating, because the film appeared with zero fanfare back in 2006. The dark comedy’s edgy message—that America was doomed to a future of dystopian idiocy—was deemed too controversial for a major release a dozen years ago, and its distributor, 20th Century Fox, pretty much buried it, showing the film in only a handful of cities.
Over the past dozen years, however, Idiocracy has become a cult classic, its inevitably weak performance in cinemas notwithstanding. Its creator, Mike Judge, who has given us such pop-culture classics as King of the Hill and Office Space, now looks like a prophet without honor back in 2006. Judge’s essential message, that idiocy was taking over the country, seems to have been borne out by recent events, above all the election of Donald J. Trump as president in 2016.
It’s difficult to expunge the whiff of Idiocracy surrounding our 45th president, with his error-filled tweets betraying a shaky command of the English language, contrary to his claim of possessing “a very good brain.” As candidate, Trump proclaimed, “I love the poorly educated,” and that, unlike many of his assertions, may actually be true. This, after all, is a commander-in-chief who belligerently can’t tell the difference between napalm and Agent Orange.
Not long before Trump’s election, Mike Judge noted the similarities between his controversial movie and real-life America, pronouncing them “scary.” In the time of Trump, Idiocracy looks more like a documentary than a dark satire, and it may have only been wrong about the timescale, predicting an America mired in intractable stupidity a half-millennium out. We did not have that long to wait. As Judge himself noted, “I’m no prophet. I was off by 490 years.”
It’s therefore worth considering why such a deeply insightful film disappeared more or less without a trace upon its release. Perhaps its message was just too pessimistic for happy-go-lucky Americans, who like their optimism sunny and perennial. Judge has frequently highlighted the darker aspects of our culture, with his caustic and insightful wit. Maybe Idiocracy just went too far.
There are also political factors to be considered. The Right was not happy with the film’s hilariously ugly depiction of a privatized future where corporations seem to run everything, at the expense of any sense of commonweal, and Costco is so pervasive that it includes a law school. This Ayn Rand-on-meth vision was not edifying for corporate interests and may have played a role in the limited backing Idiocracy got when it appeared in 2006.
Neither was the Left pleased with the film—particularly with its forthright depiction of what stupid people outbreeding smart ones over generations, then centuries, produces. This is properly termed dysgenics, and it’s something progressives don’t want discussed. The Left loves science, except when it challenges its worldview, and nothing gets them more animated than any whiff of IQ and its real-world implications. Idiocracy is about that problem, which polite people never discuss.
Over the last dozen years, evidence has mounted that Judge’s argument was grounded in a painful degree of reality. The dumb do seem to be inheriting the earth with distressing frequency of late. President Trump himself seems like a near-parody of psychology’s Dunning-Kruger effect, which in lay terms is dumb people thinking they are smarter than they actually are. Indeed, Trumpism itself may be a collective manifestation of Dunning-Kruger in action, with masses intentionally, gleefully spurning the counsel of experts.
Then there’s the painful fact that the average IQ in America and across the West is clearly dropping. In the first half of the last century, average IQs rose in the developed world, what social scientists term the Flynn effect, but over the last few decades that trend has visibly reversed. What is causing this IQ drop is debatable—Negative lifestyle factors? Dysgenic reproduction as satirized in Idiocracy? Demographic changes?—but its reality is no longer. If you’re imagining that the population around you is getting dumber, you’re right.
This has become a legitimate crisis for the U.S. military, which is having a devil of a time finding sufficient numbers of recruits who are not stupid, obese, and/or convicted criminals. Less than 50 years ago, America’s military was the employer of last resort for some citizens; indeed judges might send you to the local recruiting station as an alternative to prison. The 21st century military is a very different place, professional and high-tech, and even raw recruits need to be literate and somewhat trustworthy, not to mention physically fit enough to get through basic training.
According to the Pentagon’s own numbers, a staggering 71 percent of young Americans are ineligible to join the armed forces, when you subtract out the too-dumb, the too-fat, and the too-criminal. In practical terms, this means that 24 million of the 34 million Americans in the 17-to-24-year-old cohort, the Pentagon’s main recruiting demographic, cannot enlist. At present, there are grave doubts whether the U.S. military can get enough even marginally qualified recruits to maintain current force levels, despite lucrative incentives for recruits on the right-side of the notorious IQ Bell Curve.
As one analyst recently summed up the Pentagon’s crisis acidly, “The problem, it seems, isn’t that young people don’t want to join the Army—or any of the services—it’s that they can’t. And therein lies a paradox: for while the U.S. military represents the best in America (as its most senior officers claim), it doesn’t actually represent America. For that to be true, two thirds of our military would have to consist of obese, under-educated former drug users and convicted criminals.”
There are serious, and potentially grave, implications when the military becomes so unlike the society it serves, in fundamental ways. None of this bodes well for the future of America’s civil-military relations. But there’s a bigger issue here, namely that Idiocracy exposed a problem which needs public discussion, but which neither the Right nor the Left want a serious discussion of. All we can say for certain is that America is, in fact, getting dumber, and the future belongs to those who show up for it.